Wandering home one evening from a particularly long day at university, I was almost run over by a pair of tousle-headed, half-washed, hoodie-wearing skateboarders, racing pell-mell down Castle St. Indignantly extracting myself from a rather thorny hedge, I caught a snippet of their conversation: “Your new board is wicked, man!” Was the skateboard in question an evil or nefarious sentient being? No; as far as I could tell, its claim to wicked was due to its brightly emblazoned deck, slick bearings and exceptional speed.
Wicked is one of those curiously enigmatic words that encompass a variety of meanings. Firstly, it may be used in reference to someone who is evil or villainous, such as our favourite fiery Dark Lord, Sauron.
Wicked may also be interpreted as meaning ‘playful’ or ‘enjoyably malicious’ – a person may have a “wicked sense of humour”. Alternatively, wicked may mean something that, while not actively malicious, is still rather unpleasant. For example, when deprived of caffeine and sleep, I am known to possess a “wicked temper”. Finally, wicked has recently been appropriated as an informal slang term meaning ‘excellent’, as in the case of our two scruffy skateboarders.
Wicked derives from the Old English term wicca, which means “male witch” or “to bend easily”. In the 13th century, British candle makers used to twist their wicks before they dipped them into the candle wax, thereby ensuring that the wax adhered to the wick. The term wicked therefore came to connote ‘twisted’. Indeed, according to the Bible, wicked indicates a twisting or perversion of the righteous: “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled” (Colossians 1:21 KJV). Additionally, witchcraft was believed to be of the devil and therefore was heavily stigmatised throughout history.
Common to slang is the inversion of meaning, so that seemingly negative words become terms of approval. Connoting various forms of maliciousness from the 13th century, the inverted use of wicked was inspired when U.S Black English adopted the ironical use of ‘bad’ as meaning ‘good’ in the late 1880s. Wicked was first used in a positive sense in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise:
“‘Tell ‘em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane. ‘Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’”
Wicked was soon adopted by the British youth culture in the 1980s, spreading to become a globally used term.
Wicked has also given rise to a number of phrases, such as “No rest for the wicked”, usually uttered by weary-eyed, coffee slurping university students halfway through a lab report at two o’clock in the morning. This idiom is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek expression referring to the eternal torment of Hell that awaits sinners, and unsurprisingly derives from the Bible, specifically Isaiah 48:22: “‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked.’”
There is evidently a trend towards the positive use of taboo and disquieting words within our society. In appropriating words that initially lack positive connotations (such as “sick” and “bad”) and inverting their meaning, we ensure that their usage is highly provocative. While a few old dears may persist in using wicked in the original sense (“You’ve been a wicked boy, Johnny!”) evidently the illicit thrill occasioned from using wicked in its complimentary sense is gaining momentum, much like the aforementioned wicked skateboard.